Charles M. Blow tells his tale of growing up

Charles M. Blow tells his tale of growing up
Charles M. Blow.
Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

“Fire Shut Up in My Bones” by Charles M. Blow

c.2014, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

$27.00 / $35.00 Canada

240 pages

Take a deep breath.

Sometimes, nothing is sweeter: a newborn’s first lungful of air. The headiness of roses, new-mown grass, or familiar perfume. A gasp at the surface of water. The sigh that accompanies a good hug.

Sometimes, you need that deep breath, especially when you realize you’ve been waiting too long for it. Or, as in the new memoir “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” by Charles M. Blow, when the air’s been knocked out of you.

Despite growing up poor in rural Louisiana, Charles Blow had a good early childhood. Nearly everyone in the small town of Gibsland, it seems, was related to nearly everyone else, so there was always an aunt, uncle, or cousin nearby to dispense candy or to play with. Blow also reveled in the presence of his gentle step-grandfather, and neighbors who coddled him.

Yes, those early years were good, but not without trouble. When Blow was just five years old, his mother, who worked hard to raise her five sons, kicked his father out of the house for womanizing. With a month left on the rent-to-own, she then moved what remained of her family to live with Blow’s great-grandfather.

The new home was a short distance away from Blow’s old neighborhood, but it might as well have been miles. With his brothers at school and his mother at work, he had little choice but to spend his days with his mentally-disabled Uncle Paul, Paul’s strange and eccentric friends, and the occasional relative who came to visit awhile.

One of those relatives was Blow’s cousin, Chester, who manipulated then-six-year-old Blow, making him steal candy. But “shame of stealing candy would pale in comparison” to what happened not long afterward, when Blow’s cousin molested him, then bullied and taunted him for months for being a “punk.”

Believing that nobody could – or would – do anything about it, Blow kept quiet for years about what happened, about the haunted part of him that sometimes surfaced, and about the cruelty and anger that dwelled inside him. He kept quiet until the night 16 years later, when Chester was on the other end of the phone…

Strictly speaking, as memoirs go, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” isn’t much different from other stories like it. Indeed, if you look, you’ll find plenty of them.

What sets this book apart from the others, however, is the way in which Charles M. Blow tells his tale. In addition to being an author, Blow is also a journalist, which shows in the beauty of his writing and the gentle images he creates, even in passages of brutality and the ultimate confusion about his sexuality that the abuse awakened. Gorgeous words like that make this book akin to being wrapped in rich cashmere that softens a hit with a sledge hammer now and then.

Look for this book – not so much for the story (which is still really good) but for the lushness of its words. Then be prepared: “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” will leave you breathless.

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